Chapter 2 ~ Grounded
Dreams belong to the living. To live one must die, just as to die one must have lived. An immortal doesn't dream, because we never die. We never live.
And so it was, huddled there in a heap of exhaustion on the forest floor, that I dreamed for the first time in my nine years of life.
I dreamt of being back home, of only a few days prior, talking to my life's Guide of my third assignment.
He emanated concern.
We floated in the Hall of Eternity, before me lay the Door—a hole in the fabric of reality—to the world of the story.
It was to be my third legend, my second without supervision, and by far my longest. Normally new Narrators spend dozens of assignments with supervision. But there are so few of us, and so many legends now.
Tell me of the world you are entering one last time. My Guide's low hum asked.
The realm of Atheium. Ruled by the Dark Queen, where my heroes' adventure will take place. The northern bordering realm of Xiren is ruled by the Dark Queen's ally the Blood Prince. To the west lies the tyrant ruler Querian, he rules the realm of Forstern. In the realms of the east and south lay the Dark Queen's enemies, the alliance of Direna. In this world there is magic. My heroes are Arithor, the main hero, and Mariette and Sir Quince, his companions. The story is a tragedy, and one of the less important legends surrounding this time.
My Guide drifted closer for a moment, he reached his mist and poked above the space where I see from, Always remember—
That the threads always change. I cut him off. It's the first lesson he taught me. The future is always in motion, a tapestry not yet woven can change its pattern. What the threads show me may be a lie.
I emanated the counter-rhythm of mist to his concern, trying to soothe it. What do you fear? We are immortal, I can not die. My mist swirled playfully, trying to remind him that if I did not fear, neither should he. I spun a mist tendril around him, a Storyteller's way to embrace and reassure. A hug. He caught my mist in his own, to return the gesture.
What fate do I fear for you, child? The answer is simple.
To have a fate at all. I reply, For that means death, even for those who can not die.
His worry had dissipated a bit, For me, please remember. It is easier than others have led you to believe, to become ensnared in legend. It is a fine line to walk, dancing on the edge of fate.
I know dear teacher. I always listen.
¤ ҉ ¤ ҉ ¤
The ground presses against my face. There's as much daylight now as there was when I passed out. I must not have been out long, maybe a few minutes at most.
The sounds of barking and hooves clattering smothers the air. The Dark Queen's men! Panic seizes my chest. They'll be able to see me now. I'll be killed.
I struggle to rise from the forest floor, but each time I scramble to right myself I hit the ground face first. Behind me the dogs are but steps away from having me in their line of sight, and I'm certain that they can already smell me. If I can't run now it's over. No, no, no! I won't die like this. Not like this.
My hands find their way beneath me. Beneath my very human chest. My twig arms heave my frame from the ground with all their strength. Little stick legs fly on instinct alone. They only get me a few feet before I hit the ground again, but I keep getting up and flailing as best I can. I slam into a tree's trunk and push away from it, the push hits me against another tree, so I push off that. Bouncing between trees, I eventually fall into a small niche, shielded from view by a root-supported wall of dirt.
Above my alcove the hounds growl and snap, wet saliva hits my face. I press as close to the wall as I can in this clumsy solid form. I was correct, the dogs can smell me.
Someone pulls them away from the ridge, and I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. Breathing, it's another thing I need to adapt to.
A few feet away a person orders the group to move on. It's only after a few minutes of silence that I realize my body is shaking.
I can die. I forget to breathe again for a second. I've spent my entire life without that fear, my entire existence without any real fear at all. The idea that I can now die, by a single careless gesture, it's unbelievable. It's reality. Something tickles below my eyes, I reach up to brush it away and my fingertips come back wet. Tears. I've seen people cry before, usually it's dramatic and with fanfare. It's because they've lost someone, or failed at something. All I have are strange silent tears.
I slowly push myself to stand, holding onto the roots for support, like a baby, fragile and weak. It isn't easy to walk, I use small hesitant steps. To my dismay I fall often. Carefully but slowly I make my way back to where I left Sir Quince.
It appears I'm keeping my promise to him after all.
¤ ҉ ¤ ҉ ¤
"Sir Quince?" I shout in whisper, "Sir Quince?" I cling to a tree trunk just outside the clearing for balance. The woods are quiet and dark, and there isn't a moon tonight, so all that can be seen are muted outlines.
The wagons are overturned and bodies of the two thieves still lie where they fell, but Sir Quince doesn't lie where I left him. My voice breaks beyond a whisper. "Sir Quince?! Sir Quince?!" My yells receive no reply. Could he have moved, or hidden, even in his condition?
No, of course he couldn't have. He was playing possum for a reason. The man couldn't stand, after all. Which means the Queen's men have him! My mind starts fragmenting. Sir Quince is the only one in this world with any motivation to help me. And now he's as good as dead. Unless...
What if I can rescue him? What if I save him? Right, great idea. I—who can not even stand—am going to save a hero.
But what choice do I even have? Beggars do not have the luxury of choice. I need to calm myself down, I need to think. I steady my breathing, and focus. First things first.
"Find out where they're going." The voice makes me jump out of my skin, before I sheepishly realize it was my own. I'm thinking out loud. "I know where they'll be tracks for certain, where Sir Quince was laying."
First I need to get over there. I look forlornly at my tree. After a few moments of gathering courage, I inch away from it's trunk. The instant my hands leave it's bark my false balance is lost and I eat dirt. I push myself onto my hands and knees and spit out some rotting leaves. "Ugh. I could live a happy immortality if I never saw the ground again." I mutter.
With twigs poking my shins and palms I crawl my way over to where I left Quince. The ground is kicked up, like there was a struggle, albeit a small one. Though in his condition, that isn't surprising. It's pretty decent he was able to put up a fight at all.
It doesn't look like I'll be able to follow any trail in pitch dark anyway. Though spending a night in the cold forest like this doesn't sound like much fun either. Sheesh, it's like my clothes aren't keeping me warm at all— I take this lovely opportunity to look down and notice that I'm not wearing any clothes. Well, that explains it.
In the last fading rays of light I crawl over to the second thief and commandeer his cloak. I'd take his clothes too, but they're soaked in blood. I almost forgot, humans have that taboo thing about corpses, respecting the dead and all. It doesn't mean anything to me, but then again, I've never had a body before. Not particularly attached to this one. I'm kind of hoping to shed it and regain immortality. But hey, that's just me.
I move away from the body—bugs and birds are attracted to the lifeless—and curl up on the ground. It's hard and it hurts, but it's too dark for me to go looking for a sleeping bag in one of the wagons, so I wrap the cloak tight and pillow my head in my arms. I close my eyes and wonder if I will dream again tonight.
Tomorrow I trail the Queen's men, but tonight, I sleep.
¤ ҉ ¤ ҉ ¤
There's a patch of sunlight that stings my eyes even behind their lids. I groan in protest, roll onto my stomach and find my way to my feet. I dreamed again last night. It wasn't the same dream I had the last time, but more vivid, and this time my guide and I were both trapped in human forms and he was screaming at me the entire time.
I shuffle from foot to foot uncomfortably, still awkward in this skin. Nothing has changed from last night, except that the corpses stink now. I should scavenge the wagons for supplies. I move to take a step forward but I lean too far into the step. Determined not to fall I shift all my weight backward, except that that was too much and my bum hits the ground.
"Oh, for the love of creation!" I scream, "That is it! I am done with this human form!" I start to cry, not the silent tears of before, but a sobbing, heaving, whining, wet and snot affair. I just don't know what to do. I don't know where to walk. And I'm so helpless I can't even get from one place to another.
A twig crunches behind me. I spin around to see a broad-shouldered figure. I've seen his face somewhere before, I'm sure of—the thief! The one that Mariette wanted to chase.
I wipe my tears and snot from my face with the cloak. Shoot! This is his friends cloak, he'll probably kill me just for taking it!
The terrifying figure stoops down and grips my shoulder, I close my eyes, I don't want to know what happens next.
"Hey, are you okay?" My eyes open, and I look to the speaker. "Are you alright? You're not all alone out here, are you?"
I stare at him for a few seconds, he's about to ask again but I answer, "I-I am fine, I am sorry."
"What?" He stares at me, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you're saying."
"I said that I am fine, and that I'm sorry I took your companions cloak." I must have mumbled before.
"What language are you speaking? I don't recognize it." The thief looks concerned.
"I'm speaking your language!" I say frantically, waving my arms.
"Why are you out here?" He seems concerned. Which doesn't make sense. He's a thief, a villain.
"Why can't you understand me?! I'm speaking common Atheium!" I sniffle a bit, I hate this human form. Nothing makes sense, Quince could understand me—except at that point I wasn't completely solid. This entire time I thought I'd been speaking clearly, but—if I'm having such a difficult time with basic motor skills like walking, I can hardly imagine that I'd be able to control advanced motor skills like speech.
"I'm really sorry, I don't know what you're saying." The thief's face twists in sympathy, I can see it's an expression he doesn't wear often.
How do I communicate with him? I wonder...Writing! I swipe away the damp leaves on the ground and frantically scribble with my finger in the dirt below. My first attempt doesn't even resemble words, so I try again, but this time I draw the letters square and big.
I UNDERSTAND YOU BUT CAN NOT SPEAK.
Although, I have to be honest, it looks a little more like:
| |_| |\| |) ∑ |≥∫¯|¯ /-\ |\| |) `/ [ ] |_| |Ξ |_| ¯|¯ [ /-\ |\| |\|¯|¯ ∫ |┘ ∑ /-\ |≥.
Writing is another fine motor skill I do not possess.
I look up to see the thief's face, he looks...vacant. "I'm sorry, but I have no idea what that says, I can't read." He looks at me with a bit of surprise, "It looks, kind of like Atheium." I nod. "So you know what I'm saying, but you can't say nothing?" I nod vigorously. He sits back and thoughtfully strokes his chin, "So you can read and write, can ya?" There's a greedy gleam in his eyes and I suddenly regret showing him that I have a skill. I had forgotten that literacy wasn't usual in Atheium.
Suddenly the man stands up, and pulls me to my feet. "Well, I have a friend back at our camp who can read, we can figure out what you're doing here and where you're supposed to be."
A camp sounds like a hard place to get away from. And what's that saying, "No honor among thieves?" Thanks, but no thanks. I move to walk away, but end up falling down again.
"Don't tell you can't walk neither!" The thief seems to smirk, but I realize he's holding back laughter. "You can read and write, but you can't walk er talk? What kid your age can't walk for skies' sake?" I look down, a little angry. It isn't like it's my fault humans have such stupid physical forms.
He helps me to my feet again. "My name's Donny." he pauses, "Guess you really can't tell me 'urs, huh?" A relief to some degree, seeing as I don't have a name. "Well, girlie, you just stand there for a moment. I gotta get what I came for. Guess I'm gonna have to carry you too. Means I can't take quite as much." He looks at me like he's trying to figure out how hard carrying me will be when his eyes jerk away. "While I'm at it, I'll get something for you to wear proper." he mumbles.
I stand while he rummages through the wagons, I can't exactly make a break for it, not now. Though I have this feeling that I'll have the chance soon.
Donny walks back in my direction. "I still have more to gather and sort, but you should change into this for now," he tosses me a bundle, which of course I fail to catch, "I hope it fits, we don't really have anything smaller back at camp."
I nod and slowly make my way—well, crawl—behind a tree, Donny's already turned around and going through the wagons. This is my chance to make a getaway. It's a good thing I know how humans put on clothes, I'll have to make this quick if I want to disappear.
When I unfold the bundle it's a simple white dress, One of Mariette's, with a pair of clunky boots inside that I recognize as one of the deceased thief's. Apparently, lack of respect for the newly departed is something I have in common with Donny. I prop myself up against the tree and slip the clothes on. I put the cloak back on too.
Donny is still busy, so I crawl away. When I'm sure he can't hear me, I start trying to walk, using the trees to support my balance. I'm starting to get the hang of this.
It takes me a few minutes to realize that I have no idea where I'm going. I'll just have to circle around wide and hope to pick up some tracks. I didn't even pay attention to which direction I went. Idiot! I could kick myself for that now. But a tapestry already formed can not be unwoven.
After about an hour searching for the tracks of the Queen's men I finally come across and tramped line of forest and my walking has improved considerably. Two birds, one stone.
I step into the path left by the Captains. It seems to stretch on forever, and they have a day's lead. But I won't fail.
Sir Quince, I'm keeping my promise.